Tag Archives: nonfiction

Flying Commas and Other Gramatical Anomalies

flyingcommas

When I was in high school, it seemed much easier to keep things like punctuation and syntax straight. Back then, teachers reviewed that stuff every few months. I don’t think I ever had time to forget it, and they had those handy posters on the classroom wall if I got stuck. It was also something that came easily for me. I never understood why some people had so much trouble with it. I would shake my head in disbelief when other students would do things like call apostrophes ‘those flying comma things.’ Let me just say: I get it now.

I don’t know if it’s the effects of having joined the texting world where, “lol u r sooo funny!!!  ttyl” is perfectly acceptable,

texting

or if it’s just that I have so much other crap taking up space in my head now. (Examples include, but are not limited to: car payments,  job security, taxes.)

stress

It’s not that I’m terrible with grammar and punctuation now, it’s just that things seem less clear-cut than they used to, and at a time when I’m expected to be more confident and competent in my writing.

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Having easy-to-use reference material that doesn’t make me feel like an idiot for having to use it is essential.

Here are some of my favorites that never leave the shelf above my writing desk:

elementsofstyle

Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

The most concise, easiest to use, straightforward book on writing ever written, and it’s small enough to fit in a pocket (okay, maybe a big pocket, but still…) or a purse. It includes examples of common mistakes, not just in punctuation, also spelling, word usage, tense, etc., so you know what not to do. Then, it shows you how to fix them. This book has been a life saver throughout my college career, and when I edit my writing one last time, (and then twice more) before submitting it.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

She made punctuation interesting, even humorous and fun. I don’t know how she did it, and I don’t want to know. It’s like when a magician makes an elephant disappear. I don’t question it. I just stand with my mouth hanging open in disbelief, and applaud. I love the Punctuation Repair Kit that came with the book. The author encourages readers to become punctuation vigilantes who go around fixing signs that say things like, “50% off you’re favorite brands, prices so low you wont believe its real!”

I’ve started doing this. It’s incredibly geeky, good, clean fun… and a public service, if you ask me. (Just make sure you fix it when the managers aren’t looking. Otherwise, they try to take your punctuation stickers and chase you out of the store. Still fun, but more exercise.)

grammarsmart

Grammar Smart by the staff of The Princeton Review

A few years ago, my brother started coming to me with questions about prepositions and dependent clauses. I searched my internal memory- I had learned these things, so I must possess the answers- only to discover those files had been overwritten with the rules to beer pong and lyrics to Weird Al songs. Sad, but I guess that’s what happens when you go to college. I invested in this book to help answer his questions and refresh my memory. It was an excellent purchase. They cover everything from parts of speech to punctuation and even gender-neutral writing. (So you can be all politically correct.)

chicagomanualofstyle

The Chicago Manual of Style

I haven’t sprung for one of these yet, as they are on the spendy side, but, if you want to write professionally, I suggest at least putting it on your wish list. Most publishers I’ve talked to use the formatting and guidlines found here to evaluate submissions, so it can usually give you some insight as to whether your writing is clean and up-to-par.

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Prompt Writing

writing

I  used to believe writing prompts would only serve as one more distraction from whatever project I was working on.

When I took a creative writing class in college, however, I discovered that one of the best ways for me to shake off writer’s block was to stop what I was doing and spend about five minutes working on a writing prompt.

Prompts are to the writing world what a starting gun is to a sprinter. And it is a sprint. The goal is not distance, quantity, or energy conservation, it is to get something down as quickly as possible regardless of how coherent, silly, or irreverent it may be.

getlit2013

How I GotLit! :

Writing prompts also illuminate how many ways there are to look at a single subject. At Inland Northwest Writers’ Guild meetings, we often do a writing prompt or two, and even if we all have exactly the same starting point, the differences in the directions our thoughts take us is striking.

This was also the case at a panel I went to during the GetLit! Festival. Four professional writers were given a prompt: Red Eye, and asked to write something that could be read in about ten minutes. The person who came up with the prompt had been thinking of airplanes and red-eye flights, but that’s not how any of the authors interpreted it.

inthekingdomofmen

Kim Barnes, a professor at the University of Idaho and the author of In the Kingdom of Men, wrote a nonfiction piece involving her family history (Which was filled with scandal and made for a great story.) and the Red-Eye Gravy her grandmother made. It brought to life the complicated family dynamics involved with several generations of relatives, and the self discovery that comes from bringing who you are together with where you come from.
americanmasculine

Shann Ray, author of American Masculine and professor of leadership studies at Gonzaga University, wrote a fictional story about a professional ballerina who marries a lumberjack. The connection to the prompt was a scuffle between the husband and wife, which he starts, but she ends by nearly putting his eye out. It sounds violent, but it had an emotional depth and a flow reminiscent of well-written poetry. By the end, I felt as if the characters were old friends, and was rooting for them to patch things up.

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Nance Van Winckel, a Spokane poet, read a piece about a young child’s tragic accidental death, and the after math for the child’s parents and their friends. Everyone’s eyes were red from crying. It was so powerful partly because she had the courage to ask the question I can never bring myself to ask when I hear about something like this on the news: [Please note, I am paraphrasing, these were not her words. I could never hope repeat her exact phrasing here, but I tried to capture the sentiment because I found it so incredibly moving. My apologies if I fail to do so.]

This was an accident caused not by malice, but by a simple lapse of memory. He forgot. I forget things all the time. Little things mostly, but where is the line between and a careless moment that leads to inconvenience and one that leads to disaster?

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Jim Lynch, author of Truth Like the Sun, ended the panel on a lighter note. His story was a spoof of old Noir detective stories (which faithful readers will know I love.) It was titled Spokane Envy, and involved a blues-music-obsessed son of a rich Seattle woman running away to Spokane. I never would have guessed I’d laugh so hard at anything so soon after contemplating death and culpability and whether good intentions mean anything. But as soon as Jim Lynch started reading, I was so caught up in the story of this socially inept, bumbling private eye who was running around Washinton State looking for a missing rich kid, trying to interrogate a girl who works in a fruit stand by the side of the road, posing as a waiter in the Peacock Room at the Davenport, and meeting a rooster named Red Eye, it was impossible not to laugh.

I found the spectrum of emotions and styles, all evoked by the same two words staggering. It was like some insane literary Rorschach test. But that’s the great thing about prompts, everyone comes up with something different. It’s also easier to venture outside your comfort zone because you don’t give yourself time to over think things.

lighter

My Own Prompt Response:

Annette Drake asked me to include my own response to the prompt given at the last Writers’ Guild meeting in this post. The prompt was GetLit! You could take it any way you wanted. We were told shorter sentences were preferable because that had been a style we were discussing at the meeting. Anyone who had anything at the end of five minutes was asked to read if they felt comfortable doing so. I did. It’s good practice for reading my more polished work, and you won’t find a friendlier audience. I came up with this:

Patches don’t do a damn thing for me.

Gum don’t work worth shit.

What I need is a cigarette:

The glow of an ember.

Smell of tobacco.

Warmth of smoke in my lungs.

But the bitch took my lighter when she left this morning.

The unlit cylinder hangs from my lips:

Benign.

Impotent.

No fire hazard here.

[Please note, I am not and never have been a smoker. I have no idea what inspired this, but that’s often how prompt writing goes. Things seem to come out of nowhere.]

I liked that I’d found a rhythm different from what I usually do, but my feelings about the piece as a whole were lukewarm until I heard the response (laughter like you hope for in a comedy club) and Annette encouraged me to share it with all of you online. I highly doubt I would have even thought of anything like this, without a prompt, let alone written it down or shared it with anyone.

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5 Infectiously Good Books: Non-Fiction

Alright, same drill as the last post, but for this one, it’s all true! How creepy is that?

In no particular order:

thehotzone

1.) The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The author of this book actually went inside level 4 (highest risk of infection) rooms at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) researching this book. You can’t even do that anymore! Anyone curious about how our government researches and prevents or controls diseases should give this one a look. And buy some hand sanitizer. The information on Ebola may give you some sleepless nights, but this book is worth it. Also look for Panic in Level 4, and The Demon in the Freezer, Preston’s other nonfiction works on the subject. All are fantastic.

spillover

2.) Spillover by David Quammen

Everything you didn’t know was fascinating about zoonoses (diseases that spread from animals to humans). This book gives an overview of several of these types of  diseases including  Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Ebola, HIV, and some I’d never heard of before. David Quammen traveled, did interviews, and thoroughly researched his subject. The first hand narrative about things like hiking through the jungles of Africa adds a depth and a personality that is often lacking in non fiction. I got to hear him read at Auntie’s and he even talked to me about my novel and signed my copy of his book. Nice guy. Awesome writer.

americanplague

3.) The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby

A well researched story told in a way that grabs and keeps your interest. The downside is that I now have a phobia of mosquitoes. Also check out her book, Asleep.

 

4.) Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

Behold the incredible mind f*&% that is Encephalitis Lethargica. You go to sleep, and you might wake up three days, three weeks, three months, or thirty years later! You might not wake up at all. Or it could have the opposite effect. You might not sleep ever again and just run around possessed by hyperactivity until you die of exhaustion. If you manage to A) survive, and B) regain consciousness, you’ll most likely be left with Parkinsons-like symptoms that rob you of the ability to walk, talk, care for yourself, you name it. The clincher? They still don’t know what causes it. I’ll be honest, this disease scares the living $#^& out of me. That’s why I decided to write about it. This book is written by another of one of my favorite authors. Oliver Sacks is a former neurologist, who now writes humorous, touching, and sometimes tragic memoirs and case studies.

awakeningsmovie

Oddly enough, this book was also made a movie staring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. It’s actually very good, and mostly accurate.

littlebookofpandemics

5.) The Little Book of Pandemics by Dr. Peter Moore

Gives a great overview with easy to read charts at the beginning of each chapter that list when and how each disease was discovered, its infectivity, the severity of the resulting illness, and the potential threat from each if they are used as a bioweapon. It’s been a go-to for me while I’ve been writing this book.

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Drunk Monks and Mountain Climbing

clips in time

Last Saturday, I went to Julie Lilienkamp’s reading of Clips in Time: Emotionally Powerful, Organic, Adventure-Essays and Epic Poetry at Auntie’s Bookstore. I hadn’t actually read her work at that point, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I’m (perhaps unfairly) skeptical of unfamiliar authors who write about their own real experiences. I feel this way for the same reason I am periodically annoyed with Facebook, or people who try to strike up a conversation while standing in line at the grocery store: Many people either

1.) Just don’t have many stories that are interesting to people who don’t already know them.

or

2.) They aren’t very good at telling their interesting stories.

In Ms. Lilienkamp’s case, I need not have worried. She has had the kind of life that leads to tales worth telling. (The adventurous sort.) I also have to give props to anyone brilliant enough to take the experience of climbing a mountain and seeing a monk who’d had too much to drink that morning, (Yes, that morning.) and think to write a poem about it. I bought a copy right away and asked her to sign it. (Which she did, with a very thoughtful personal inscription.)

She also allowed me to take a picture, so I wouldn’t have a repeat of the Patrick McManus reading. (Neither of us was really photo ready, so please judge- or don’t- accordingly. I’m the tall geeky one with the glasses.)

julielilienkamp

The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I wish I’d written it myself, but I don’t climb mountains. I stay home and type. That’s why I mostly write fiction.

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